Monday Kickstart: The Jeremy McGrath Invitational

Yes, it’s that time of year again; the time for off-season races with huge purses. Usually around this time in October, we would be writing Kickstart from a room high above the Las Vegas strip in the fancy MGM Grand Hotel, but this year that race has been pushed back another week while the Jeremy McGrath Invitational takes place. And while we might not be writing in a comfy hotel room, there is still plenty to talk about at this first-year event. So, without wasting anymore time, lets get right into it.

When McGrath first set out to put on an event like the Jeremy McGrath Invitational, he went about it in a way that no one had thought of before, and one look at the track made this painfully obvious. There was a hidden start, huge ramp jumps, and more flashy colored lights than any other Supercross we have ever been to. On top of that, the event itself was run differently than other more traditional SXs. For starters, each night’s action was kicked off by all of the riders doing a few timed hot-laps, which seeded them into the head-to-head match races later on in the program. From there, riders then competed in a short qualifying race for gate picks in the final 16-lap main event at the end of the night. Needless to say, it was an interesting few days of racing action that was both different and refreshing at the same time.

Like we said, the track was one of the more interesting ones we have seen in a while. Replacing the triples were two huge freestyle ramps on each side of the track that riders launched themselves over each lap. Overall, most of the riders felt that the track was a nice change and a lot of fun. We heard time and again throughout the pits, that many of the riders enjoyed throwing their bikes sideways off the ramps. And needless to say, it was truly awe-inspiring to watch Kevin Windham get flat over the jumps.

Perhaps the biggest news at the event was the fact that the races name sake Jeremy McGrath crashed out of competition during the timed qualifying on Friday night. The early word on Friday was that he wouldn’t be racing, so we talked to his mechanic Lars Lindstrom on Saturday to get the full scoop. According to Lars, MC went over the bars on a double jump, knocked his head pretty good, hurt his big toe—among other things—and bent up his bike really bad. “He went to the hospital on Friday night to get checked out, it just sucks he isn’t racing,” Lars said. Being the fast guy that he is, though, we asked Lars if he would be gearing up for the race to take his rider’s place, “(Laughs) Yeah, Kevin (Windham) keeps telling me that, but I don’t think I’m going to.” Before the show started on Saturday night, it was announced that MC was still in the hospital, and the early word was that he fractured his C7 vertebra and broke two bones in his foot.

Just like other professional Supercross and motocross races, the Asterisk Mobile Medic crew was on hand to help keep everyone safe, and like always, Doc Bodnar and all the other medical personnel on hand did an excellent job at tending to everyone’s needs.

One of our TWMX test riders Michael Sleeter was invited at the last minute to race; however, bad luck struck him down during practice on Friday afternoon. While entering a tricky rhythm section before the first ramp jump, Sleeter crashed and had to be carted off by the Asterisk Mobile Medic Mule. Early word was that he injured his arm. Here’s hoping for a speedy recover for our boy, Sleeter.

Attendance for the JMI race wasn’t all that impressive. On Friday night the stands weren’t even half-full, and while Saturday night wasn’t that much better, there was still a noticeable change in the amount of people in the stands. This is the first year, though, so here’s hoping that things turn around if the race returns to the Home Depot Center in ’07.

There were quite a few riders already in their new ’07 colors athe race. Most notably was Team MDK/Motosport Outlet’s newest recruit David Vuillemin. DV was also sporting some new Answer gear. Former Factory Yamaha rider Heath Voss was also aboard a new bike. After riding for Team Yamaha for numerous seasons, and even winning a World Supercross Championship aboard the bikes, Voss is now on his own, as he competed on a Dr. D-prepared Honda CRF450R. Jason Thomas was also doing his own thing aboard a CRF450R, as the team he was riding for in ’06—Subway/Coca Cola/Honda—closed-up shop before the end of the season.

Team Honda’s Ernesto Fonseca was on hand to take in the action. He was interviewed on the center stage during a break in the racing, and he commented that it was good to be back at the races. “I’m glad to be back at the track and hanging out. And I’m happy to be alive; that’s all that matters,” Fonseca said. “I’m having fun, and it’s looking like the riders are having fun out there too. I think it’s all about having fun, I don’t think we will ever see this at a Supercross, with the ramps and all that.”

There was a scary incident between Team Solitaire’s Ryan Clark and Honda-mounted Eric Sorby during racing action on Friday. While the two riders were battling for position through a tricky rhythm section, Clark decided to double then single into the preceding turn while Sorby tripled. The result was Sorby landing on the likeable privateer’s hand, with Clark sustaining a nasty gash to his right hand. After getting his paw wrapped up on the track, Clark ran over to give Sorby a piece of his mind. Thankfully nothing more came of it, and Clark returned to the Asterisk Mobile Medic rig where he received 17 stitches to repair his torn-up hand. During the incident, Clark was wearing the NBC helmet-cam, and needless to say, it will be something to look for when the show airs in two weeks.

Since the event wasn’t an AMA-sanctioned race, the standard sound limits didn’t apply. It was easily evident by the fact that Team Sobe/Samsung Mobile/Honda’s Josh Grant’s CRF250R was one of the loudest bikes on the track. As it turned out, the silencers on his bike were cut down—we’re guessing for more power.

Team Red Bull KTM’s Josh Hansen was one of two riders aboard 250cc four-strokes—the other being Grant’s—but he didn’t let that hold him back. Known to be good friends with Nate Adams and the guys in the Metal Mulisha, Josh knows how to throw down on the ramps. With that in mind, we decided to catch him for a quick interview to find out his thoughts about the innovative JMI event.

What made you decide to race this event?

Everybody knows that Jeremy is one of the most respected riders out there, and it was kind of one of those things where he has done a lot for the sport and I knew his race was going to be good. If that guy does something, it’s all or nothing. I came out here to test it out and it’s awesome; I’m glad I did it. It’s a cool race, and great to just get some experience.

What about the ramps?

They’re awesome. I wish they had them in real Supercross—that would be cool. I’m stoked on them.

You’re friends with a lot of the guys in the Metal Mulisha. Have you ridden many ramps before?

Yeah, I have a little bit, but I haven’t been over there (to ride ramps) for a while. I’ve jumped ramps plenty of times, though, so it was kind of basic for me. I got to learn it pretty quick.

What about the head-to-head racing when Travis Pastrana did the backflip right in front of you?

It was crazy! That guy pulls off some gnarly stuff, and it was just cool to be out there with him—somebody like him, who is well respected. It just worked out in my favor that time, but Travis is a good rider. I mean, the guy doesn’t even race and he is on my pace. It’s pretty amazing.

Did he say anything about doing the backflip during the head-to-head race you guys had?

Well, he said something to me, but I didn’t really think he would actually go through with it.

Before the race even took place, there was a lot of talk about which riders would actually be competing in the inaugural event. As it turned out, though, not every rider that was originally slated to compete actually showed, leaving the promoters in a bind at the last second to find riders to fill the open positions. In fact, after a few riders—Jeremy McGrath, Ryan Clark, and Sleeter—got hurt on Friday night, more riders were called in to take their place, and one of the riders who benefited from it was privateer Joe Oehlhof. “Average Joe” got the invite after watching the race from the stands on Friday, and came out Saturday to race. As it turned out he did pretty well, beating Suzuki’s Travis Pastrana straight up in the head-to-head competition and going on to finish around the top-10 in the final 16-lap main event Saturday night.

How did you end up racing the Jeremy McGrath Invitational?

I was just in the stands on Friday night watching, and Brett from Shoei came up to me and said that they needed riders. So I called Sondra Peters to see if I could maybe get in.

Why did you get recruited at the last minute to ride?

Jeremy hurt himself, and I believe Ryan Clark hurt his hand, so that opened up a couple of spots. I was at the right place at the right time, and now here I am.

What do you think about the track?

It’s a lot of fun. The track flows really good, and the ramps are a lot of fun—they were a little intimidating at first, but after I jumped them I was comfortable and they were a lot of fun. The rest of the track is really good. I really think they put together a good deal.

You rode at our 450cc shootout the other day. Have you made the big decision about what bike you’re going to ride next year?

I’m not for sure yet. It kind of depends on the deal I get. All the bikes are really good, so I think I can make them all work. I probably have the top-three in my head, but we’ll see what happens.

With the different format of this race, what do you anticipate for the racing action?

Just watching it last night it looked like a lot of fun, and I was talking to the riders down there before practice and they all said it was probably one of the most fun races we have ever done. It’s something different than what we have done the last couple of years, so it’s kind of new and exciting. I’m just going to go out there and try to do the best I can to see what happens.

In our race report Friday night, we mentioned communication problems that plagued the first night of racing as a lack of signage and some confusing announcing left those in attendance a bit unsure what was going on at times. Well, Saturday night the JMI staff definitely stepped it up by getting signs on the big screen that explained each race, and a bracket board setup to show who would be racing in the head-to-head event. It definitely helped improve the experience for the fans—not to mention the media trying to report on the event.

While the racing was the focus of the show, it would seem the freestyle demo intermissions just about stole the spotlight. The crowd really livened-up when Pastrana, Nate Adams, Ox, Mike Mason and the other FMX pros started throwing down big tricks over the track’s metal ramps. Although a freestyle ramp was setup in the middle of the track during intermission, some of the better tricks—including the Pastrana/Adams simultaneous backflips—took place on the track itself. We heard from several fans walking around the pits that they really enjoyed the freestyle action.

Every rider we spoke with enjoyed the racithing about doing the backflip during the head-to-head race you guys had?

Well, he said something to me, but I didn’t really think he would actually go through with it.

Before the race even took place, there was a lot of talk about which riders would actually be competing in the inaugural event. As it turned out, though, not every rider that was originally slated to compete actually showed, leaving the promoters in a bind at the last second to find riders to fill the open positions. In fact, after a few riders—Jeremy McGrath, Ryan Clark, and Sleeter—got hurt on Friday night, more riders were called in to take their place, and one of the riders who benefited from it was privateer Joe Oehlhof. “Average Joe” got the invite after watching the race from the stands on Friday, and came out Saturday to race. As it turned out he did pretty well, beating Suzuki’s Travis Pastrana straight up in the head-to-head competition and going on to finish around the top-10 in the final 16-lap main event Saturday night.

How did you end up racing the Jeremy McGrath Invitational?

I was just in the stands on Friday night watching, and Brett from Shoei came up to me and said that they needed riders. So I called Sondra Peters to see if I could maybe get in.

Why did you get recruited at the last minute to ride?

Jeremy hurt himself, and I believe Ryan Clark hurt his hand, so that opened up a couple of spots. I was at the right place at the right time, and now here I am.

What do you think about the track?

It’s a lot of fun. The track flows really good, and the ramps are a lot of fun—they were a little intimidating at first, but after I jumped them I was comfortable and they were a lot of fun. The rest of the track is really good. I really think they put together a good deal.

You rode at our 450cc shootout the other day. Have you made the big decision about what bike you’re going to ride next year?

I’m not for sure yet. It kind of depends on the deal I get. All the bikes are really good, so I think I can make them all work. I probably have the top-three in my head, but we’ll see what happens.

With the different format of this race, what do you anticipate for the racing action?

Just watching it last night it looked like a lot of fun, and I was talking to the riders down there before practice and they all said it was probably one of the most fun races we have ever done. It’s something different than what we have done the last couple of years, so it’s kind of new and exciting. I’m just going to go out there and try to do the best I can to see what happens.

In our race report Friday night, we mentioned communication problems that plagued the first night of racing as a lack of signage and some confusing announcing left those in attendance a bit unsure what was going on at times. Well, Saturday night the JMI staff definitely stepped it up by getting signs on the big screen that explained each race, and a bracket board setup to show who would be racing in the head-to-head event. It definitely helped improve the experience for the fans—not to mention the media trying to report on the event.

While the racing was the focus of the show, it would seem the freestyle demo intermissions just about stole the spotlight. The crowd really livened-up when Pastrana, Nate Adams, Ox, Mike Mason and the other FMX pros started throwing down big tricks over the track’s metal ramps. Although a freestyle ramp was setup in the middle of the track during intermission, some of the better tricks—including the Pastrana/Adams simultaneous backflips—took place on the track itself. We heard from several fans walking around the pits that they really enjoyed the freestyle action.

Every rider we spoke with enjoyed the racing format, and the big prize purse certainly didn’t hurt either. Unlike traditional Supercross races where riders finishing at the bottom of the pack don’t win enough money to even cover their expenses, the JMI paid well all the way to last place, and K-Dub took home a check for $125,000 on Saturday as the overall main event champion.

Both fan attendance and the racing action improved the second night, no doubt an encouraging sign for the event promoters. Despite some problems, when it was all said-and-done, the Inaugural Jeremy McGrath Invitational definitely showed some promise and did a good job of creating a unique racing experience for both the riders and fans. We’re looking forward to hopefully seeing the JMI again next year.

racing format, and the big prize purse certainly didn’t hurt either. Unlike traditional Supercross races where riders finishing at the bottom of the pack don’t win enough money to even cover their expenses, the JMI paid well all the way to last place, and K-Dub took home a check for $125,000 on Saturday as the overall main event champion.

Both fan attendance and the racing action improved the second night, no doubt an encouraging sign for the event promoters. Despite some problems, when it was all said-and-done, the Inaugural Jeremy McGrath Invitational definitely showed some promise and did a good job of creating a unique racing experience for both the riders and fans. We’re looking forward to hopefully seeing the JMI again next year.